WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Roughly a decade since cemetery giant Service Corporation International paid out roughly $120 million after being accused of misplacing bodies, smashing vaults and overselling plots at its graveyards near Palm Beach Gardens and Fort Lauderdale, it is facing similar allegations.
In a lawsuit filed Thursday in Palm Beach County Circuit Court, lawyers who in the past have taken on the nation's largest funeral service firm claim that operations at the Star of David cemetery in North Lauderdale are as gruesome as those that got the company in trouble with state regulators and spawned civil suits.
Calling the practices "morally despicable, fraudulent, unlawful and unfair," attorneys Edward Ricci and Michael Avenatti said they are seeking more than $200 million on behalf of the thousands who buried loved ones or prepaid for plots at the sprawling Jewish cemetery near Florida's Turnpike and Commercial Boulevard .
Information they have gathered shows that vaults were crushed and corpses moved without permission from family members. In some cases, vaults, grave markers and possibly human remains were thrown in a lake on the property, said Ricci, who was among the lawyers who successfully sued the company 10 years ago for the repulsive handling of graves at its two Menorah Gardens cemeteries.
This time, it appears it's more of the same, he said. "We have some pretty solid evidence that graves were desecrated, moved and destroyed without permission," he said, referring to photos and videos the attorneys have received. "It's pretty gruesome."
Officials at the Houston-based company said they don't comment on pending litigation.
Avenatti is also suing the publicly traded company in California, alleging similar activities at a cemetery it operates in Los Angeles. A California judge recently sanctioned the company for destroying evidence, such as throwing out broken vaults, in violation of a court order. A jury trial is set for Oct. 1.
In the Menorah Gardens cases, a $100 million settlement was reached in 2003. Of that, $26 million went to lawyers and $34 million was split among whistle-blowers and families who were most grievously harmed, such as those who learned that the bones of loved ones had been thrown in the woods to make room for new graves. About $40 million was to be split among the roughly 350 other families who were determined to have legitimate claims.
The company reached a $14 million settlement with the Florida Attorney General's Office. SCI also announced it would spend $17 million restoring the two cemeteries.
Initially, the statewide prosecutor filed criminal charges against the company. The charges were dropped when prosecutors acknowledged they couldn't throw a corporation in jail. They settled for putting a former vice president of its Florida operations in jail for a month. Jeffrey Frucht pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for failing to contact authorities when he learned of the illegal activity.
Prosecutors also forced the company to pay out more than $4 million to expand the state's ability to regulate the cemetery industry. It also agreed to offer free burials for the poor in Palm Beach and Broward counties for a year.
Avenatti said he and Ricci have been in contact with state regulators in connection with the problems they have uncovered at Star of David. He said the company's track record is stunning.
"I know of four different cemeteries in four different places with the same kind of problems," he said. "You know what they say: once is chance; twice is a coincidence; three times is a trend. I don't know what four times is."